Urban Hymn

Review by Willard Manus

A gritty social drama with a surprisingly upbeat finish, URBAN HYMN has a lot going for it. The British film won several festival awards before its American release and it stars three young actors who surely will be heard from again in future.

Letitia Wright plays Jamie, a tough young black teenager whose rebelliousness keeps landing her in trouble with the authorities. After being kicked out of house and school, she lands up in a borstal–-a prison for juvenile offenders.

Her best pal is Leanne, who is even more hard-boiled, cynical and disaffected than she is. Isabella Laughland brings this girl to life in a powerful, unsettling performance that won her an Evening Standard award for “Most Promising Newcomer.”

Both Jamie and Leanne come out of the underbelly of British society: poverty-stricken, violence-ridden neighborhoods where drugs and crime are coin of the realm. It was in places like these where the 2011 riots broke out. URBAN HYMN opens with archival footage of those riots, providing social context for the personal drama that follows.

Another key role, that of an idealistic and unconventional social worker named Kate, is played by Shirley Henderson, who won acclaim back in 1996 for her work in Danny Boyle’s “Trainspotting.” Kate has a hard time coping with the unruly Jamie, yet refuses to give up on her, having noticed her melodious singing voice.

Kate fights to persuade Jamie to take a shot at a singing career. The kid has the raw potential, but it’s been sabotaged by her laziness and her contempt for the system which has always undervalued her as a human being. Kate urges her to change her thinking, find the strength and discipline to do the hard work it takes to become a professional singer.

Pulling Jamie in the opposite direction, out of jealousy and spite, is Leanne, who not only fears she will lose Jamie to the white world but that her best friend will be chewed up by it. The all-female love triangle that lies at the heart of URBAN HYMN gives it an unusual sensibility and point of view. That the film was directed by a man, Michael Caton-Jones (“The Jackal”), makes it even more remarkable.

URBAN HYMN’S crisp, hard-driving story and dialogue were written by Nick Moorcroft. The film’s equally impressive musical score was composed by Tom Linden and supervised by Martyn Berg.